The Handmaid’s Tale abandoned its tried and tested flashbacks and Canadian cutaways this week in favour of something a little more daring, season 3 episode 9 taking place almost entirely in the delivery room of a Gilead maternity ward.
Seeing its protagonist slowly unravel from too much time spent in one location, it was reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s critically acclaimed episode ‘Fly’, though allowed itself a little more breathing room, with supporting characters coming and going as June prayed at Ofmatthew’s bedside. We’ve seen June hit the wall many times now, but never as hard as this, our hero delirious and prone to lunge wildly with a scalpel; you know you’re in trouble when Janine is the one talking you down.
Elisabeth Moss has already given a crazy amount of energy and emotion to this show, but this episode must have been her most exhausting yet. The opening interior monologue was beautifully written, asking you to consider the acrid smells of Gilead that sit at odds with its always-beautiful aesthetics. A perfect circle of immaculate red cloaks might look pleasing, but what about the festering sores under them? The kitchens are all soft, hazy morning light, but how must they smell after the 5000th fish dinner?
June started the episode hell bent on revenge but ended it in a place of compassion, the hinge of ‘Heroic’ being an encounter with a kindly doctor (not her first) who extinguished her fury.
It was very intentional that we never got a backstory flashback for Ofmatthew. Who knows what drove her to act so servile? What horrors caused her to not feel able to break from Gileadian dogma? How can we so readily assume she’s just a bit of an asshole? Or maybe she is, but – June was forced to consider – don’t assholes deserve mercy too?
June’s brief meeting in the ward with a young teenage girl who was about to become the latest to be turned into birthing machine seemed to compound this, the girl insisting how delighted she was to be serving Gilead at such a young age, and June showing total empathy and understanding towards the girl’s terrified, automatic response.
Compassion for all victims was the message of the episode, but also: death to the enemy. June has been adrift ever since it became clear that rescuing her daughter may never be on the cards, but here she found new purpose: don’t just fight for your own blood, fight for everyone.
A strong, thoughtful episode. Not one of the all time great single-locationers, but it’s always valuable to spend a full hour with a character, when so often we’re darting from sub-plot to sub-plot. Now, if you please, Handmaid’s Tale, more Aunt Lydia backstory!